Trees are reflected in the water in the Buena Vista community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 24 September 2017. Photo: Carlos Giusti / AP Photo

By Robert Jay Lifton
7 October 2017

(The New York Times) – Climate images have never been able to convey our full planetary danger until now. The extraordinary recent four-punch sequence of hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria — threatened the lives of millions of people, obliterated their homes and has raised doubts that some places will ever recover. The rest of us have a newly immediate sense of catastrophes of biblical proportions. As meaning-hungry creatures we search for explanations. No wonder some have embraced the apocalyptic narrative of total destruction by an angry deity. And no wonder that climate-change rejecters like President Trump have increasing difficulty defending their position.

Even before the hurricanes we had experienced a drumbeat of storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires that rendered global warming not just a remote future danger but an immediate one. This fear was reinforced by the recent hurricanes, which provided imagery equivalent to the danger, imagery equivalent to nuclear disaster. When we viewed photographs and film of the annihilated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we sensed that the world could be ended by nuclear weapons. Now these hurricanes have conveyed a similar feeling of world-ending, having left whole islands, once alive in their beauty and commerce, in ruin.

But does this mean that we attribute this menace to global warming and to human contributions to that warming? My answer here is yes and no and yes again.

Yes: Scientists warn that hurricanes are made worse by the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans and by the increased storm surge caused by higher sea levels. Climate change can thus amplify disasters into catastrophes.

No: There are still voices ridiculing this conclusion. About the record-breaking intensity of Hurricane Irma, Mr. Trump said that “we’ve had bigger storms than this.” And Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, took righteous exception to discussing the “cause and effect of these storms” as “very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.” Both were engaging in climate rejection rather than denial. Because with climate truths so widely disseminated and accepted, both know in some part of their minds that global warming is real and threatening.

But there is good reason to believe that climate rejecters, including the president and Mr. Pruitt, are fighting a losing battle. The apocalyptic fear aroused by the recent destructive hurricanes is the latest manifestation of the mounting dread that has taken hold in the American mind-set about the implications of our steadily warming planet.

So yes again, hurricanes have now become a central component of what I call the climate swerve: the powerful shift in our awareness of climate truths. The swerve is a change in collective consciousness that includes a coherent narrative of global warming, of cause and effect and of steps necessary for mitigation. The swerve forces us to look upon ourselves as members of a single species in deep trouble. [more]

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